At first glance it would seem that ‘carpe diem’ ought to apply to Humanists. Humanists believe we each have one life and there is no hereafter – surely we should ‘seize the day’ and live it up?
But a second glance casts doubt on that conclusion – if we only have one life, we should be cautious rather than reckless, or else it might be over too soon.
Wallowing in a fog of alcohol or drugs, followed by lousy hangovers, does not sound like a good way to use the finite time we have. As Berthold Brecht put it in September Song: “These precious days I’ll share with you.” Preferably not blind drunk.
Greed is built into us. Evolution explains how we inherit physical attributes and patterns of behaviour from our ancient ancestors. Our ancestors prized high energy foods – high in fats and sugars – foods which were rare for them.
Thus we inherit a drive which makes us react greedily to chocolate – something tells us ‘Go on, eat it, that’s good stuff’. But luckily for us, we can overrule those drives.
Humans have developed the power of language and that means we can imagine future situations and the consequences of our actions. Which gives us the power to consider our waistlines and say “No, thanks!”
There is a poem by Andrew Marvell which deals with the promptings of the sex drive: To His Coy Mistress.
In it the male narrator is trying to coax his lady friend to give herself to him. His argument is that, if they were going to live hundreds of years, modesty would be OK. But in actual fact, life is short. Therefore she should abandon modesty and live it up with him. Carpe diem, in other words.
It is a great poem, full of rich language and vivid imagery, but the argument is weak.
He says nothing about life after their fling. The future does not seem to exist. He does not even say there will be any relationship afterwards.
And then we realise that perhaps he is lord of the manor and she is a serving-maid. But if that is the situation, then his seductive words are worthless. He has nothing to lose, but she has everything to lose.
So carpe diem is a foolish outlook on life. We have to look beyond the present moment and take some account of the consequences of our actions. We are not children who simply grab what is in front of them.
Humanists accept the fact of our mortality. One life is all each of us has. But that is a good reason to use our time well.
Life offers us a world of possibilities and there are many different pathways that we can choose. Some pathways are dead-ends. But most pathways offer a way to the good things in life and common sense tells us which ones they are.
Carpe diem is bad advice. Carpe viam (seize the path) makes far better sense.
Les Reid teaches a course on Humanism as part of the City of Edinburgh Council adult education programme. He is a member of the Edinburgh branch of Humanist Society Scotland (www.humanism.scot).